Time for an EU focus on mental health and suicide

World Mental Health Day provides an important opportunity to reflect on the importance of good mental health and to mobilise efforts to improve support, says Tomáš Zdechovský.
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By Tomáš Zdechovský

Tomáš Zdechovský is a vice-chair of the European Parliament's Employment and Social Affairs Committee

10 Oct 2019

Each year, World Mental Health Day - 10 October - focuses on a specific priority theme; this year, it is suicide prevention.

Every 40 seconds, someone commits suicide - 800,000 deaths per year; the number of people attempting suicide is even greater.

The prevalence of suicide among young people is particularly alarming: it is the world’s second-leading cause of death for people aged 15 - 29.


One of the major and treatable risk factors for suicide is depression: nearly 15–20 percent of people suffering from depression choose to end their life through suicide.

However, there are other risk factors, such as unemployment, lack of social support and stressful life events.

Effective prevention strategies require a comprehensive policy approach and a collaborative care model, involving both the health sector and wider education, labour, business, justice, law and defence components.

Stakeholders here must cooperate, led by governments, to ensure a cross-sectoral approach. It goes without saying that services must be adequately resourced.

“The prevalence of suicide among young people is particularly alarming: it is the world’s second-leading cause of death for people aged 15 - 29”

These were key messages of a report titled “A sustainable approach to depression: moving from words to actions”, co-authored by nine leading EU-wide mental health-related organisations.

The report, formally launched in the European Parliament in December 2018, supported by myself and several of my colleagues, underlines the complexity of suicide and points to existing best practices and effective prevention strategies.

In Finland, for example, there has been a suicide prevention programme in place since the 1980s, resulting in a 30 percent decrease in suicide deaths.

The EU can do a great deal to support good mental health and suicide prevention. Not long ago, the European Commission subscribed to the slogan ‘no health without mental health’, taking on several specific EU-level actions, including in the area of suicide prevention.

These were widely welcomed as visibly demonstrating the EU’s recognition of the importance of mental health and showing that it can act effectively, despite a limited health and social policy remit.

The Joint Action on Mental Health, for example, saw the development of a European Framework for Mental Health and Wellbeing, containing specific national-level policy recommendations.

The EU also has a clear role in stimulating the collection and exchange of good practice and funding research.

However, since 2017, there have been no new specific mental health activities proposed. Instead, mental health is now part of the Commission’s wider chronic diseases activities.

“I would like to see a comprehensive EU Mental Health Action Programme developed, as originally proposed by the Commission in 2004”

This could undermine its importance as a public health priority in its own right; in EU and Member State policymaking and health system funding, mental health is still not on a par with physical health.

This imbalance urgently needs to be redressed if we are to curb the growing social, clinical and economic impact of mental ill health on our societies.

The need for action is critical and urgent – a specific focus is not only warranted, but essential for driving real change. In the absence of specific actions, we should look to existing EU initiatives to ensure they include mental health.

This should be considered as part of the European Pillar of Social Rights, which sets out the right to health and long-term care, as well as healthy and safe work environments.

It should be considered in the European Semester Process, which increasingly considers national health and social security systems.

The Health Programme, which funds health cooperation among EU countries and underpins and develops EU health activities, may also provide opportunities.

The MEP Alliance for Mental Health – launched in 2009 as the Interest Group on Mental Health, Wellbeing and Brain Disorders – can play an important role in driving change by facilitating dialogue between stakeholders and policymakers.

At its first meeting in the new European Parliament, the Alliance gave mental health stakeholders the opportunity to set out their priorities, outline how they fi t within the EU policy agenda and suggest how to address them effectively.

Moving forward, the Alliance will continue as an advocacy and exchange platform, fostering new partnerships for improving mental health and creating appropriate EU level awareness, attention and action, including in suicide prevention.

As a co-chair of the Alliance, one of my core goals within the next Parliament will be to ensure specific EU level actions on mental health.

Also, I would like to see a comprehensive EU Mental Health Action Programme developed, as originally proposed by the Commission in 2004.

This would promote a sustainable and comprehensive approach to mental ill health, with adequate and smart investment to support good mental health, including depression and suicide prevention. With the rising burden of mental ill health, it is time for action.


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